Sudip quickly climbed the small hill littered with big, small rocks and stones that made it easy to hide from curious eyes, or prying eyes. The old haunted castle was sitting on the top of the hill, with an air of gloom and foreboding.
“Too many have lost their lives in and around that doomed piece of property!” he has overheard his landlord tell his father. “If I was you, and had two teenagers I will tell them to never go anywhere near that place, day or night!”
He entered the huge gate of the castle, it was not in its best condition, its stone body was covered with lichen, moss and cobwebs, a stone here, two there were missing. The doors and windows have been ripped away long ago, giving an eerie look to the place, as if exposing the inner darkness to the eyes of visitors, warning them to not loiter around that place! Its gray stones blackened by neglect further enhanced that feeling.
A crow cawed raucously right above his head he picked up a small stone it flew away after looking at him with its beady sparkling eyes before he could strike it or try.
He settled down right inside the gate and fished out his packet of cigarette and lighter from his trouser pocket. He knew no one will be here to catch him in the act of enjoying his forbidden pleasure. Even the adults were scared of this place.
He loved spending hours here, mostly on the days he bunked a few classes or coaching classes. Dad was such a slave driver, and mom was always rubbing her palms in front of him. So he had to take the help of trickery, what else was he supposed to do? Wake up in the morning- study! Then eat breakfast, take bathe, go to school and study! Then return home, eat something and then what? Go to coaching class and study! No not done, return home, eat dinner and then study some more with daddy! An hour was fully utilized by that moron to grill him, to ensure that he has not been loitering around all day!
Playing? Enjoying yourself…that meant destroying your life in that moron’s dictionary.
“I don’t think schools these day teach anything Deep, so don’t tell me that you don’t have enough time and scope to entertain yourself in those six hours! There are two recesses, a sports class of one hour every day, library hour three times a week! What else do you want?” His father has coldly asked him when a few years back, still a stud he has whined about “playing with friends”.
“Now you will hate me. But when you have settled down with a brilliant career you will thank me!” His father has further lectured before pulling the mathematics book to start grilling.
Sudip blew a ring of smoke and sat watching it fly upwards. It rose against the blackish walls of the fort, creating a clear, beautiful ring then it slowly melted in the air.
Sometimes he wished he could blow his father away like that …. In one single breath! The only obstacle was he was the bread earner! The man who supplied for their food, clothes, lodgings and much more thus it will be a really dumb thing to do!
The sky was cloudless. He could hear the roaring of the ocean from the other side of the fort. There was a steep fall of at least hundred meters to the beach below. The hill abruptly fell straight to the beach on that side, on other three sides it was quite an uncomfortable climb. Only one path has been paved by the king who made this castle, and one can guess that it must have been a Herculean task at that era.
That’s why it was easy for the armies of this castle to butcher all attackers.
Sudip stretched, yawned and went to the opposite side, the sea was roaring, hitting at the lower boundary walls of the castle that was half way up the hills, right after that fall from this side. It was full moon. The tidal waves were roaring in and out of that beach. It was a fabulous scene for beauty lovers but not Sudip. He was not into those scenic beauties. He had other things to think about.
Sudip suddenly felt a desire to spend the night here and see how those waves will look under moonlight, will they rise higher? But how can he make that happen? His father’s grim face and his mother’s weepy face showed up in his mind’s eyes. He could visualize himself requesting his father to permit him to spend a night in the haunted fort.
He had a huge belly laughter imagining his father’s reaction. Then he devised a plan and went down. When he reached home his mother was in the kitchen cooking. He helped her with chores for a while.
His mother Sudha watched him with a half suppressed smile on her loving lips. “So, what do you want? A new DVD?” she asked after a while.
Sudip nodded furiously.
“Come on! Tell me!” Sudha laughed out loud, no longer able to stop herself.
“I will have to spend the night with Raju. His mother was sick he could not study a single page of English and our examination is day after tomorrow. If someone does not help he will fail!” Sudip said, feigning as much sadness as he could.
“You know your father.” His mother’s face became grim. “He will bring down the house on our head!”
“Please ma, tell him, after all, I will revise my studies too, he will be able to test it tomorrow himself!” Sudip pleaded.
“Alright, I will tell him that a group of your friends are studying together and you have joined them. Please don’t make a fool of me tomorrow!” Sudha said.
“I won’t!” Sudip hugged her.
“Let me go!” Sudha laughed tenderly.
Sudip went out of the house on his bicycle, headed for Raju’s home. His mother greeted him with a warm smile. “He is inside, in the drawing room.”
“Need a favour!” Sudip settled down by him, “Will return whenever, whatever you ask!”
“What?” Raju asked casually.
“If my parents ever meet you and ask you tell them I have spent the night with you. I have to go somewhere and I can’t tell them just tell them that we were studying English together. Your mother was sick and you could not study anything so you asked me to save you! Actually you begged me!” Sudip giggled.
“It’s a bad omen to say something bad about loved ones!” Raju grumbled.
“Sorry yaar…. Nothing else popped in mind!” Sudip said, hanging his face, “We will offer some prayers for auntie tomorrow, on our way to school!”
“That won’t be necessary but don’t use such lies next time!” Raju patted his shoulder.
“I will be leaving now!” Sudip got up and left quickly. He had other things to do.
He quickly went to his room and started stuffing things in his backpack, a flashlight, a six inch knife (his parents were not aware of its existence of-course), mosquito repellant and a small bottle of carbolic acid for slithering things, candles, matchstick, biscuits, chocolates (stolen from his sister’s room) and water.
“Ma, I am starving!” Sudip barged into the kitchen, planning a heavy snack. He knew Sudha will be delighted to stuff him up. She quickly fixed a delicious one, he stuffed enough of them in his tummy that will keep him sate till late evening. He ate two parathas with pickles and packed two for Raju. They will be his dinner! Then he left on his bicycle.
“It will rain very heavily!” Sudha handed him his raincoat. “Hope you will reach Raju’s home before it starts pouring!”
Sudip scowled at the really dark sky! It was four in the afternoon and it appeared that it was almost evening! Hope it will be gone before the moon shows up, he prayed hard. Otherwise this night will be wasted- well partially! Passing a night in a haunted castle with or without moon and tidal waves was cool enough for him! Maybe a fierce storm will strike!
“I will pedal real fast!” He waved at her. “I will be back after school tomorrow!” He smiled and pedaled away cursing the stupid clouds for their choice of day.
It was late next evening when Sudha started worrying Sudeep was always careless, but not this much! He promised her that he will let his father grill him today, to ascertain that he has not fooled around with friends on pretext of studying the previous night.
His father was about to show up any time now, but there was no sign of Sudeep. Well, his father did show up ultimately, she braced herself as she went out to the verandah to greet him, like she did every evening.
He smiled at her, “Where are the children?”
“Pinky is studying in her room, Golu (Sudeep) is at his friend’s home!” she said in a soft voice.
“What…? He is not back yet, was not one night out enough for your son?” he scowled. “His English exam is tomorrow, right?”
“Yes.” She answered, hiding her own anger at her son.
“Get in the car, let’s go and bring your darling son back home, to study!” He did not even enter the house and headed straight back to the car.
She went in and asked Pinky to lock the door from inside.
They reached Raju’s home but Sudeep was not there.
“He was supposed to come here uncle, to help me in my studies, but he did not.” Raju washed off his hands. If his rogue friend ran into some trouble, he did not want any part of it. After all, he did not have the least idea about his whereabouts!
The frenzied parents visited every friend, classmate’s house, he was nowhere, and none have seen him after school the day before! The last person who saw him was Sudha, when he left home for Raju’s home.
“Let’s go to police!” Sudha said. They both were seriously worried now. Panicked will be the more appropriate term.
“Don’t worry!” the police inspector tried to soothe them, “Most probably he is out on some mischief, will show up after the examination are over. Most probably he did not study for them. He will wait for some time for your anger to calm down and return after he is sure that he won’t be punished. When instead of asking him questions you will be happy that he is back safe and sound! I know these kids!” he said, “In the meantime we are starting the search! We don’t take these things lightly, so don’t panic, go home, if he is not there already we will bring him soon!”
They passed a sleepless night in the drawing room, jumping up at the sight of every passing headlight, hoping it was police jeep.
Sudha got up to prepare the tea at dawn. Her heart still believing the words the police officer said that he ran away because of study pressures and will be back after the examinations. May be, this lesson will teach Sudhir, her husband that kids should not be ordered around like that. They are to be treated kindly, sometimes sweetly.
She nudged Sudhir, “Your tea!”
“Is he back yet?” Sudhir asked.
Sudha told him that he has not and went to Pinky’s room to wake her up. She opened the door, the window was wide open Pinky was not in the room. It was empty, her bed was unmade. She has slept in it, and then went out without tidying her bed- so not like her! She was quite fussy about keeping her room pretty.
“Pinky…” Sudha called out loud running from room to room, looking for her, hoping she is sleeping in their room. She sometimes did when she had a nightmare, last night they were not in their bedroom, so she might have gone there and fallen asleep on their bed. But their bedroom was empty, so were the toilets and every other possible place.
Sudhir came rushing, “What happened?”
“She must be out in the garden.” Sudhir muttered as he went out to check the garden, but she was not there. The rose bush outside her window was flattened to the ground. As if someone has thrashed it with a lathe.
His legs became rubbery he slumped down on the muddy ground, still wet from last night’s pouring rain. He looked up and his eyes met Sudhas’ terrified eyes. Her face was white as a sheet of paper. She too slumped down and started crying.
This time the inspector came to their home with his team and searched the house from top to bottom for clues. There were none! They did not have any enemies. They did not receive any ransom call even after a week passed away. A horrible week for the whole town!
Every night a young girl vanished from her bedroom.
On the eighth day the police inspector showed up at their doorstep with a very grim expression on his face.
“We don’t have any concrete proof but if we believe a drunkard your son is behind these disappearances.”
“What?” Sudhir asked, absolutely furious. Instantly assuming this was the sick way of police to wash their hands off the investigation. Just blame the person who has complained!
“Yes! This man, the guard of your son’s school was returning from his hooch den when he fell asleep near the castle he swears that he woke up in the middle of night and saw your son walking towards the castle with a young girl in his tow.”
“He swears that he tried to scream and run after them but could not move, he was immobilized by some invisible force and after that he of course fainted.” The police inspector continued, “When he came to senses it was morning and he came running to us.”
“I will expect one of you to accompany me to the castle, now!” the inspector said in cop-like tone.
Sudhir asked Sudha to stay back at home in case the kids show up and left with the officer. It was late afternoon when they started climbing up the hill. The clouds were still hovering in the sky. They never left after that fateful night.
“Walk cautiously.” Inspector Chaurasia said, the ground was really slippery, so they walked slowly up the hill- real slow!
The cops were a bit fidgety about going there at that hour but decided not to wait till dawn. That may result in another disappearance. They reached and the team fanned out in pairs, Sudhir and Inspector Chaurasia stayed together.
“Sir…” the inspector’s walkie-talkie buzzed, “You should come and see it!”
When they reached the ground floor of the castle the whole group of constables was standing huddled outside the door that led to the basement.
“It’s down there sir!” the constable who has called him downstairs said.
The whole group descended cautiously.
There was a huge statue of a creature an imaginary creature that looked like a dog but had scales and a long spiky tail. Its colour was weird- blackish but not black and it looked like a live thing. Nestled against it was Sudip- sleeping!
Sudhir rushed towards him but a firm hand pulled him back. It was Chaurasia.
“Don’t!” Chaurasia whispered, pointing his finger at the twitching tail of the statue.
The beast opened its eyes, burning red. A monstrous growl escaped its throat and Sudip opened his eyes.
Sudhir stepped backwards. Sudip’s eyes were exactly the same as the beast. Burning like coals in a mine pit, as if with hell’s fire. Because his young face was full of malice and mockery.
“So you found me out finally but it’s too late!” Sudip looked at them, a mocking smile hanging from his lips. “He is awake.” Sudip hissed in a cracked voice petting the creature.
“This town is mine now you can run or you can stay….” Sudip laughed. The roar of his laughter exploded like thunder bolts in the confined basement. “….stay to feed him he needs food every night. But he prefers children especially girls.”
A peal of laughter sounded from behind the group, the group turned their faces in the direction of that laughter the girls were standing in a group, watching them.
They did not need to confirm that they were no longer alive. Their eyes told them. They were white and their skin was already decaying. They stood there facing the terrified group, no one could tell if they were seeing them or not. The group started moving backwards cautiously towards the stairs.
“I am sparing you for now because my father is with you, by the way dad you and mom can join us.” Sudip croaked baring his teeth without least sign of mirth or joy, “But you will have to obey me. Just like I had to obey you for years! Without the right to question your capacity or authority of controlling my life!
“Whoever wakes up the beast owns the town. Now you know why this town was never conquered by enemies! Because the beast was awake back then, it never sleeps. When the sorcerer king died his subjects brought another sorcerer to petrify it. But it knew all the time that one day its master will return and when he does it will wake up with his first touch!”
“That night I did not go to Rajus’. Sorry daddy I lied! I came here, to check out the haunted fort in night! The checking out was worth the risk!” Sudip continued in his half hissing half croaking voice. Most probably too glad to see his father listening to him without even trying to stop him one may think!
“It was late. Most probably somewhere near midnight, the storm was lashing on the fort, sea truly roars during storms, you know! The waves and the howling winds can really scare you to death. But my pet’s roar was louder than ocean. I heard him calling out to me. So I started looking for him and found him… or maybe he found me!”
“He is handsome, is not he my pet? I could not resist caressing him when I saw him, frozen inside that stone exterior. He woke up the minute I placed my hand on his body.”
“Then he was hungry! Ravenous! He told me what he wanted and I started with Pinky. How can I live for eternity without her? Don’t worry. Her soul may have been devoured by my pet but her body will live forever. Those decays will get fixed after they have their first meal.” Sudip was ranting on and on, absolutely oblivious to the group’s movements. They were inching for the stairs that brought them down to this hell hole.
“Remember one more thing! Darkness spreads under its wings your town will never see day light again.” They heard his voice coming out of the basement as they scampered up the stairs and ran out of the fort.
They descended the hill as fast as they could. After reaching the foothill they parted without goodbyes and rushed for their homes.
The darkness outside became eerie and chilling. Screams of those out in the street shredded the deathly silence again and again.
They could hear the scary whisper of those girls outside their windows, calling out to them like sirens called out sailors. Calling out their loved ones by names, promising them heaven if they follow them!
They could hear the monstrous roar of the beast as it prowled from one end of the town to the other end.
They hugged their kids tightly, waiting for sun to rise.
It never did.